May 17: Ezekiel 36:26-27; 37:14

Ezekiel 36:26-27; 37:14

Along with the book of Isaiah, it is the book of Ezekiel that contains the most extensive references to the spirit (j^Wr) of God. The key Isaian passages were discussed in the previous notes; today we turn to the references in Ezekiel, and we may divide the context where these occur into three categories:

    • The opening Theophany-vision of chapter 1—the manifestation of God on his chariot-throne. In verses 12 and 20 it is said that “the spirit” (j^Wrh*) moved and guided the wheels of this heavenly ‘chariot’; yet there is some ambiguity as to whether this refers to the spirit of God, or to the spirit of the “living beings” at work within the wheels (vv. 20-21). The use of the definite article, without any other qualification, suggests that it is a reference to the spirit of God.
    • References to the prophetic inspiration of Ezekiel himself—expressed in various ways:
      • the spirit coming on/in(to) him, using the preposition B=, beginning with the introductory scene (2:1-2), and repeated in 3:24
      • the spirit coming/falling “upon” (lu^) him—used in 11:5, this is the more traditional idiom for prophetic inspiration
      • the spirit lifting/carrying the prophet—as by a great wind (the more fundamental meaning of the word j^Wr); this is a development of the ancient idea of the divine spirit “rushing” (like a powerful wind) to a person, with inspired sayings/oracles uttered while the prophet is overtaken by the spirit. Used repeatedly (3:12, 14; 8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5), this idiom serves as a colorful way of describing the spirit-inspired character of visionary experience—the prophet feels like he is being transported to a new locale, part of a visionary landscape. The book of Revelation was almost certainly influenced by this wording in Ezekiel (cf. 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10)
    • Oracles/visions referring to Israel/Judah’s future restoration (return from Exile)

It is the last category that I will be discussing today, focusing on two main passages—36:26-27 and 37:14—each of which are from the great restoration oracles/visions in the latter part of the book. It must be remembered that Ezekiel’s prophecies were written/recorded in the midst of the Exile in Babylon, and the prophetic theme of Israel’s restoration is defined almost entirely in terms of a return from exile. This was also true of the Deutero-Isaian passages we have examined (cf. the prior note on 44:3 etc), while the oracles in Joel 2-3 (cf. the previous note) probably also derive from a 6th century context which, at the very least, anticipates the Babylonian conquest and exile.

Ezekiel 36:26-27

The oracle in 36:16-28 is one of several great restoration oracles (and visions) in the book; that is, as noted above, it prophesies the coming/future return of Judeans to their homeland. It follows the traditional prophetic (and Deuteronomic) pattern of attributing the conquest/exile to religious and moral failure by the people. This tradition itself is firmly rooted in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the binding agreement (covenant, cf. below), especially those patterned after the suzerain-vassal treaty format. When a vassal violates the terms of the agreement, the suzerain is no longer obligated to provide protection, leaving the vassal prey to military attack. Moreover, the binding agreement was understood as having been signed/ratified in the presence of God (or the gods)—and included built-in curse forumlas—so that divine judgment/punishment would result from any violation.

Typical of the prophetic message was a declaration that genuine, widespread repentance among the people (that is, a return to faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH) was necessary to avoid the judgment that would (otherwise) come through military conquest/exile, and was also a prerequisite for any future restoration once judgment had occurred. What is interesting in this oracle of Ezekiel, is the suggestion that true repentance/faithfulness may not even be possible for the people, in their current condition. After all, not only had they been unfaithful to God during their history in their own land (vv. 17-19), but their unfaithfulness continued even after they had been exiled into other lands (vv. 20-21ff). This is especially problematic, since YHWH’s own reputation (as God of Israel/Judah) now suffers and is disgraced among the nations. It is YHWH’s concern for His own “name” that prompts Him to act, not any sign of repentance or faithfulness among the people (vv. 22ff).

This is a striking shift in the prophetic message. God acts unilaterally to restore Israel, and their return to the land is no longer tied to any repentance on their part! However, this new model for Israel’s restoration does still require conversion of the people (back to faifthfulness); while this was impossible before, it will now be realized through a total transformation of their character and nature, performed miraculously by divine fiat. The primary idiom used to express this is that YHWH will give them “a new heart” (vd*j* bl@); interestingly, this only will occur after God has brought Israel/Judah back to the land (vv. 24-25). The transformation is described in verses 26-27:

“And I will give to you a new heart,
and a new spirit [hv*d*j& j^Wr] I will give [i.e. put] in your inner (parts);
and I will turn (aside) the heart of stone from your flesh,
and I will give to you a heart of flesh.
I will give [i.e. put] my spirit [yj!Wr] in your inner (parts),
and I will make you (so) that walk by my engraved (decrees)!”

The final line could not be more clear: God will make His people follow his decrees and precepts (i.e., written in the Torah). This motif of the “new heart” draws upon older prophetic tradition, especially key passages in the book of Deuteronomy which emphasize the need for Israel to be circumcised in their heart—that is, to be truly faithful to God in their heart, rather than in rote obedience to the requirements of the Torah (cf. 4:29; 5:29; 6:5; 8:2ff; 10:15-16; 11:16ff; 30:2, 6ff etc). The same idiom occurs frequently in the Deuteronomic books of Samuel-Kings, and, more generally, throughout the Psalms and Wisdom literature as well. It was in the message of the prophet Jeremiah, however, that this theme took on greater prominence (5:14; 9:26; 11:8 etc), in the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. He introduces this idea of God giving a new “heart” to His people, and connects it with their future restoration (24:7; 32:37-41, and see further below). In all likelihood, Ezekiel was influenced by this use in Jeremiah

What is most important, from the standpoint of these studies, is how Ezekiel here makes a close connection between this “new heart” and a “new spirit” that God will also give—a spirit (j^Wr) that is a manifestation of God’s own. This identification is clear from the parallel in vv. 26-27:

and a new spirit I will give [i.e. put] in your inner (parts);
……..
I will give [i.e. put] my spirit in your inner (parts)

The same heart-spirit pairing is also found in two other passages (11:19 and 18:31). This is a development of the simpler idea of God “pouring out” His spirit on the land and its people (cf. the prior notes on Isa 44:3 and Joel 2:28-29); Ezekiel makes use of this idiom as well (39:29), but the idea of God putting His spirit into the innermost part (br#q#) of the people, suggests a more complete transformation of their entire nature and character. Indeed, that seems to be what the prophet is describing.

Ezekiel 37:14

The same theme of restoration is described in terms of resurrection in the famous vision of chapter 37. More properly, the image evokes that of a re-creation, a return to the original scene of creation, when God first breathed/blew life into humankind (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4, cf. the earlier note). This certainly is suggested by the wording here in verse 5:

“So says my Lord YHWH to these bones:
See! I am bringing in(to) you breath [j^Wr], and you will live!”

This does not simply refer to ordinary life-breath, however, as the climactic words of the vision make clear:

“And I will give [i.e. put] my spirit [yj!Wr] in(to) you, and you will live, and you will know that I have spoken, and have made (it so)…” (v. 14)

It is essentially the same message as in 36:26-27 (above)—once Israel has been restored to life and returns to the land, the people will be filled with God’s own Spirit, and will (finally) be able to remain entirely faithful to Him. The wordplay involving the meaning of j^Wr (“breath/spirit”), sadly lost in most translations, is vital to an understanding of the vision in chap. 37.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Mention should also be made here of the famous “new covenant” passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34. It is very much part of the same “new heart / new spirit” theme discussed above. However, it defines this more precisely in terms of observing the Torah (hr*oT, instruction) of YHWH (v. 33). From the standpoint of Israelite/Jewish tradition, the Torah records and preserves the terms of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, ‘covenant’) between YHWH and Israel. It was Israel’s inability to live up to the terms of the agreement that led to their Exile, but now, as part of the future restoration (with their return from Exile), God is going to ensure that His people will be able to fulfill the terms of the agreement (the Torah) faithfully. This effectively will be a new agreement, and a new heart is required to fulfill it:

“I will give [i.e. put] my Instruction [hr*oT] in(to) their inner (parts), and I will inscribe it upon their heart, and I will be (the) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] for them, and they will be (the) people for me” (v. 33)

The wording is quite similar to that of Ezek 36:26-27, only instead of God putting his Spirit into the innermost part of the people, he puts his Instruction (Torah) there. Being written on their heart, it will be fulfilled automatically, requiring no written precepts (or enforcement) to bring this about. This can only happen through the Spirit of God, and that association, introduced here in the later Prophets, would eventually develop into the idea that the Torah would be fulfilled (entirely) through the presence and work of the Spirit. It was the apostle Paul who first presented and expounded this teaching; sadly, even many Christians today still do not recognize the truth of it.

The association between the Torah and the Spirit will be discussed further in the next daily note.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:16-18

The ‘fourth’ Day of Christmas (December 28) is associated in the Church Calendar with the “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2:16-18. I will be discussing this passage in more detail in a subsequent note for Epiphany; here I will look specifically at the Old Testament passage quoted in v. 18: Jeremiah 31:15 [LXX 38:15].

This is one of many “formula-citations” in the Gospel of Matthew, and the third of five used in the Infancy narrative: the first, Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23) I have already discussed in a series of Advent notes; the second, Micah 5:2 (Matt 2:5-6) will be treated prior to Epiphany. The setting for the Scripture passage is the “massacre” of the newborn children, narrated briefly in v. 16:

“Then Herod, seeing that he was (being) played with by the Magoi, was provoked (to anger) exceedingly, and setting forth (men) from (him), he took away [i.e. killed] all the children th(at were) in Beth-lehem and in all her borders, from two-years (old) and down [i.e. under], according to the time he (sought to) know precisely from [lit. alongside] the Magoi.”

Then the citation is introducted (v. 17): “then was fulfilled the utterance through Yirmeyah {Jeremiah} the foreteller, saying…” Jeremiah 31:15 exists in four principal forms: the Hebrew MT, the LXX A (Alexandrinus) text, the LXX B (Vaticanus) text, and the version in Matthew. The version in LXX A and Matthew is fairly close to the MT, although there is some indication, at least in this instance, that Matthew may reflect a more accurate Hebrew original. Here are the three versions side-by-side:

Hebrew (MT)

Thus says YHWH:
“A voice in Ramah was heard, mourning and weeping of bitterness [i.e. bitter weeping];
Rachel, weeping over her sons refused to be comforted [over her sons],
for he is no (more)”

LXX A [38:15]

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice in the height [B Ramah] was heard, of wailing and weeping and mourning,
Rachel, weeping (aloud) over her sons, and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
Ou%tw$ ei@pen ku/rio$
fwnh\ e)n th u(yhlh [B Rama] h)kousqh qrh/nou kai\ klauqmou= kai\ o)durmou=:
Raxhl a)poklaiome/nh$ e)pi\ tw=n ui(w=n au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

Matthew 2:18

“A voice in Ramah was heard, weeping and much mourning;
Rachel, weeping (for) her children [te/kna], and did not wish to be comforted,
because they were not.”
qwnh\ e)n  (Rama\ h)kou/sqh klauqmo\$ kai\ o)durmo\$ polu/$:  (Raxh\l klai/ousa ta\ te/kna au)th=$ kai\ ou)k h&qelen paraklhqh=nai
o%ti ou)k ei)si/n

It is possible that the repeated phrase “over her sons” in the MT is a scribal error or addition, as well as the curious singular suffix in the last line “he is no (more)”; if so, then Matthew (and LXX A) may reflect a more accurate underlying Hebrew text than the MT. Unfortunately, verse 15 is not preserved among the six (highly fragmentary) Jeremiah scrolls from Qumran.

In applying Jer 31:15 to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christians both saw themselves related to this “new covenant” with God.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). The town Ramah (lit. “height”, so translated by LXX A) was in the territory of Benjamin, on the border of Ephraim and not far from Bethel; it may be the same as Ramah/Ramathaim the hometown of Samuel’s father, and is usually identified with modern er-Râm. According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem. However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (see Matt 2:14-15, 19-21). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus (cf. my earlier Advent season note).

At the historical level, given the likely population of a relatively small town like Bethlehem, the number of male infants slaughtered would probably have been fewer than one hundred (perhaps even less than fifty). However, as the tradition developed, and legendary or fabulous details were added, the number expanded considerably—most commonly 14,000, as in Greek Orthodox tradition, but occasionally even higher. These “Holy Innocents” came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs.